Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Random House 2005).

No one in her right mind would frame a Third Reich propaganda poster and hang it on the office wall. No one would buy a "cute" ceramic figurine of Stalin for display in the den. Yet memorabilia and artifacts associated with Mao Tse-Tung, from reproductions of Andy Warhol's lithographs to ironically purchased copies of the Little Red Book, are acceptable in polite society. So is the very idea of Mao, as academic and popular writers discuss back and forth which of his achievements outweights which of his failures, crystallized in the official Chinese Communist Party line that Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong.

I mention this cultural reality to pre-empt the argument most frequently launched against Mao: The Unknown Story, the charge that the majestic biography of the Chinese leader is unfair or unobjective. Mao is not intended to be a balanced, neutral report. It is intended to be an indictment, supported by millions of facts, many in Mao's own words. The book grabs you by the lapels and screams, "See what this monster did! Treating him as anything other than an auto-genocidal maniac is not OK!" Western culture maintains a willingness, based on more than 80 years of propaganda, to give Mao the benefit of the doubt; the intent of husband and wife historians Jung Chang and Jon Halliday is to make it unarguable that China, and the Chinese people, would have been infinitely better off if the madman had never lived. Like Hitler, the argument should be whether Mao was 0% or 1% correct.

Ego and Lies

Mao's dominant characteristic was an almost unfathomable egotism. "People like me want to . . . satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me," Mao wrote in college.

Mao was also a solipsist; he only believed in what he could personally experience. “I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I don’t know about the past, I don’t know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self,” Mao wrote. “People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations."

Almost every element of Mao's mythos is a lie, the authors argue.

 Mao claimed to be a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, he joined in 1921, one year after the Party was founded.

 Mao claimed the Party was independent of Moscow. In fact, the Party was controlled and financed by Stalin for decades.

 Mao claimed to be a Communist true believer. In fact, Communism was merely an expedient way for him to acquire power and, in the earliest days of his involvement, a paycheck.

 The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is bound with the Long March, a tactical retreat from Nationalist troops during the 1930s which is portrayed as the Party's finest hour. In fact, the Nationalist forces, which controlled most of China at the time, allowed the Communists to retreat unharmed so that they could be used as a bargaining chip with Stalin.

 The centerpiece of the Long March was the crossing of the Luding Bridge, where heroic Communists rebuilt a bridge over the Dadu River under heavy Nationalist fire. In fact, there were no Nationalist soldiers at the bridge, and the Communists walked across without incident as confirmed by the Party's own records.

 Mao did not march on the Long March. He was averse to all forms of physical exertion except swimming and sex, so he traversed the 7,000 miles of the Long March while being carried in a sedan chair.

The authors confirm other startling facts. Mao did not bathe or shower during the 27 years of his reign, and he never brushed his teeth, which became black. Mao never learned Mandarin and spoke throughout his life by way of interpreters who could translate his obscure Hunanese dialect. The women in the Army's dance and drill team were his harem. Mao ruled from bed, sleeping all day and dictating orders and reading books all night. Mao would meet foreign dignitaries in a dignified book-lined study, the contents of which had been looted from "landlords" and other "class enemies."

Chen and Halliday devoted ten years to researching and writing Mao. They conducted formal interviews and informal conversations with more than 400 people, including 16 heads of state and heads of government. Their sources ranged from Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush to the Dalai Lama to actor Michael Caine (who fought against Chinese troops in the Korean War) to almost every person, Chinese or otherwise, still living who had anything to do with Mao. From an American perspective, the only missing voice is that of Richard Nixon, who died as research for the book commenced.

Mao reads like a novel, a psychologically rich, epic tragedy colored by ambition, revenge, betrayal, war, diplomacy and blood, rivers and lakes of blood. The book is a quick and compulsive read, despite its length of almost 1,000 pages (about 200 of which are notes and sources). Mao is the Sopranos played on a global scale, the saga of a sadistic criminal who acquired absolute power over one quarter of the earth’s population.

More Than 70 Million Dead

Mao killed more people than any other person in human history -- and he did it during peacetime. In deriving the estimate that Mao was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million people, Chang and Halliday do not include combat deaths during World War II (during which, contrary to his image as a freedom fighter, Mao refused to engage Japanese forces) or during the subsequent Chinese Civil War (which Mao won not by military genius, as is proclaimed, but because a top Nationalist general was a Soviet-installed sleeper agent who deliberately lost key battles).

Almost 40 million of those deaths occurred during a four-year period beginning in 1958 called the Great Leap Forward, which was the result of Mao's plan for personal global dominion. "We must control the earth" was his injunction. Mao told Party colleagues, “In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth.”

Mao’s aspiration to become the ruler of the world was dependent upon China becoming a superpower within his lifetime. Since, as he noted in college, he didn’t care about the state of China after he died, the modernization of the country’s military infrastructure had to occur as fast as possible for the then-64-year-old dictator to achieve his goal.

Mao decided to buy military equipment, personnel and services – all of the elements of a modern military -- from the Soviet Union and other Bloc nations. But China did not have that kind of money; instead, Mao traded food for the armaments and obtained that food by requisitioning it from the rural peasants who grew it. Mao, who had no grasp of economics, calculated the requisition requirements by starting with the price of the arms he wanted to buy and working backward, never considering the yield of the lands or the nutritional requirements of the Chinese people.

The result was the largest famine in history. Mao’s superpower program reduced peasants to eating tree bark and dirt and, in some provinces, to cannibalism. Mao’s response was to “educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel.” Mao was furious when local Party officials asked him to reduce food requisitions in the name of good conscience. “You’d better have less conscience. Some of our comrades have too much mercy, not enough brutality, which means they are not so Marxist,” Mao responded. “On this matter, we indeed have no conscience! Marxism is that brutal.”

Mao made it clear to his colleagues and his enablers that the Chinese people were expendable pawns. “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution,” Mao told his Russian armorers, referring to half of his nation. “Don’t make a fuss about a world war. At most, people die . . . . Half the population wiped out . . . ,” Mao told a 1958 Party Congress. “Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die,” Mao told his inner circle later that year. If there were a nuclear war with the United States, “All it is is a big pile of people dying.”

Terror and the Cultural Revolution

Mao retained control through terror, by jailing, torturing and killing millions of people, especially Party members, all the better to guarantee their obedience. “We must kill. And we say it’s good to kill,” Mao said, referring to the manner in which he would periodically purge the Party of “revisionists” and “rightists” and “capitalist roaders,” empty labels Mao applied to anyone who disagreed with him or whom he perceived as a potential threat. Mao ordered local officials to perpetrate “massive arrests, massive killings.” He would send memoranda demanding increases in the numbers of executions. ‘Be violent,” Mao told the Red Guards, college students whom Mao used as terrorists and bandits during a great purge that began in 1966.

That purge was called the Cultural Revolution because its first victims were artists, writers, painters and other intellectuals that Mao deemed to be “not useful.” (Scientists and engineers were spared because they could work on the superpower program.) Although its principal aim was to purge rival Communists, culture was a target. Thousands of historic structures were torn down, including the city walls of Beijing. Famous artists, actors and writers were beaten or killed, and books, paintings, sculptures, records and musical instruments were destroyed. Mao even ordered the pillaging of Confucius’ house, because Mao saw Confucius as a rival philosopher.

Everything Mao touched became a living Hell, and almost every countryman who crossed his path lived (or died) to regret it. Idealistic volunteers joined the Communist Party at its wartime headquarters of Yenan and discovered to their horror that they were being used as slave laborers who would be shot as deserters if they tried to leave. Mao allowed one of his sons to be held hostage by Stalin. The most dangerous jobs in China were as the official Number 2 and Number 3, and it is with those closest to him in the Party hierarchy to whom Mao was the most vicious.

The Misery of Chou En-Lai

Every Holmes has his Watson. Mao’s was Chou En-Lai, and Mao is of necessity also a biography of Chou. Mao envied and feared his Number Two, because Chou was everything Mao was not. Chou was handsome and charming, suave and tailored, China’s sophisticated face to the world. Many retired diplomats have said that Chou En-Lai was the most impressive person they ever met.

Mao made Chou pay terribly. Mao, the authors suggest, commissioned a treasonous article under Chou’s pseudonym and blackmailed him with it for more than forty years. Chou would have to give day-long “self-criticism” speeches, at which he would abase himself and tell the audience of his every mistake or transgression from Maoist orthodoxy. Chou was forced to act as Mao’s chamberlain, available at every hour to meet with Mao and to implement unquestioningly all of Mao’s orders. And, in 1975, when the two old men were dying, Mao refused to allow Chou early surgery for his bladder cancer, ensuring that Chou would die first. One of history’s dark jokes is that Chou, who was a blood-soaked despot by any objective standard, is considered by the Chinese and by China hands to have been a sympathetic moderate.

Stalin was right when he observed that one death is a tragedy and one million deaths is a statistic. The scope of Mao’s barbarism was so vast that the tens of millions of deaths he caused begin to blur. So here is the story of one.

The Death of Mao’s Second Wife

Yang Kai-hui was the second of Mao’s four wives, bearing him three sons. She was one of the few people who genuinely loved Mao. When Mao devoted himself to obtaining control over a portion of the Party’s army, Mao left Yang at her family home in Changsha, where she lived with the children for the next three years. Several months later, Mao married for the third time, never informing Yang.

In October 1930, Mao, returning with troops, attacked Changsha. The Nationalist government, which had left Yang alone since she was not involved in politics, arrested her and told her to divorce and denounce Mao or be executed. She refused to betray Mao even in words and, at the age of 29, she was shot. The soldiers in the Nationalist firing squad followed Chinese custom and threw her shoes as far as they could so her ghost could not haunt them. While the executioners were having lunch, they realized that she was still alive, and they shot her again.

What did the great man do while his wife was in danger? Chang and Halliday write:

“During his assault on Changsha, Mao made no effort to extricate her or their sons, or even to warn her. And he could easily have saved her: her house was on his route to the city, and Mao was there for three weeks. Yet he did not lift a finger.”

Something to remember the next time you see a “kitchy” Mao poster.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Editorial Note

Shenzhen, China

I have crossed back into mainland China, so my ability to add or edit posts, or include photographs or links, is compromised by the Great Firewall. Please read the Wikipedia entry under "Internet Censorship In China" for an overview of the situation.


Franklin The Cat Says "See Miss Potter. Feed me."

Today's guest blogger is Franklin The Cat:

Burbank, California

Now that I have completed the third of my five daily meals, please let me address a topic of some importance to my graceful feline comfort and your simple human amusement. As some of you know, I am a cat of exquisite breeding and social refinement, the most sought after home companion in Hollywood, cuddlier than Tinkerbell, classier than Bit Bit.

I spent the prime of my life gracing the American Society of Cinematographers, being rubbed and petted by a dozen people a day. Oh what joy! Then I lived for several years with the Tall Guy, who is currently wandering a continent called Asia where the locals sometimes do simply dreadful things to kitty cats. Now I live with the Pretty Lady and her husband, the Man Who Looks Young But Has White Hair, and there's even a kitten here for me to tell the secrets of felinity.

The Pretty Lady keeps me in Friskees and Pounce by making movies, nay, producing cinamatic extravaganzas that transport you to another place and time. One even had to do with lions! Roar!

The Pretty Lady's new movie is called Miss Potter and, although it doesn't have big African cats, it has animated birds and rodents and other things we kitties love to chase around the yard and claw and bite and decapita-. Pardon. Let me compose myself.

Beatrix Potter wrote children's books about animals but also had a fascinating personal life, or as fascinating as a human life can be. In the advertising for the movie, Beatrix Potter is also called Renee Zellweger, who I thought was married to the American Man With the Smile, but then she dated the British Man With The Frown, and now she's single. She wants to marry the song and dancy man who sometimes has a light saber, but her parents – quite right in my opinion -- think he's too common . . . . although it does remind me of the incident when I was positively driven to mate with that lubricious street scrumpet Mrs. Whiskers. But I digress.

Miss Potter opens tomorrow, December 29, in a small number of cities and then opens in more theatres on January 5 and even more on January 12. I believe it’s called a platform release and has something to do with a curious primate notion called “word of mouth.” Mouths are for eating and meowing, dear creatures.

In any event, the more of you who see Miss Potter, this gem, nay, this masterwork of the cinematograph, the happier the Pretty Lady will be and the more she will rub my tummy. Purrrrrrr!

So please, see Miss Potter as soon as it arrives at your town, why, see it the very first weekend (I hear that’s of some import.), and feast your eyes on its splendors. Now, if you will excuse me, I devote no less than 20 hours a day to refreshing my constitution by lying quite still on a soft surface and pondering the mysteries of catkind.

Until next time: Mew. And see Miss Potter.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Global Map of Submarine Fiberoptic Cables

Alcatel's global map of submarine fiberoptic cables is at .

Kind of defeats the myth that the internet is a point-to-point
non-centralized system. There are obvious pinch points and
bottlenecks, with some parts of the world ignored altogether.

Hong Kong Is Down

Hong Kong, China

The December 26 earthquake off the coast of Taiwan damaged four of the
seven fiberoptic submarine cables which link it and Southern China to
the internet. For about a day and a half, Hong Kong had no internet
service to web pages hosted outside of Hong Kong. Strictly local
connections could be made to, for example, the web pages of the South
China Morning Post and the Hong Kong government.

Some data service has resumed, as ISPs re-route their service through
other cables or through costlier satellite systems. Instant messaging
and similar services are still down, forcing high school students to
actually talk to each other.

Repair of the four damaged cables could take up to three weeks,
according to local news sources.

I cannot access Blogger and am sending this post via e-mail.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Filipino Maid and the Cantonese Cobbler

Macau, China

PART ONE: The Filipino Maid

"She's pretty," I thought, as I noticed the Filipina out of the corner of my eye.

She was sitting alone on a park bench, talking on her mobile phone. She was about 20, with long, straight black hair. She wore blue jeans tucked into black pleather boots, the mandatory fashion for stylish young women in southern China, and a light blue windbreaker over a dark blue blouse. She was giggling and speaking in a rat-a-tat rhythm that I presumed was Tagalog.

"She's probably done working for the night," I thought, since it was about 9 p.m. The well-to-do of Macau and Hong Kong employ Filipino and Indonesian women as "amahs," a Portuguese word for "wet nurses" that is used to describe maids and nannies. The amahs live with the employing families and are free later in the evening (after the kids are asleep) and on Sunday, which is called "Freedom Day."

The park was small, about half a block. On one side was a tiny Confucian temple. Surrounding the park were soot-caked apartment buildings. The park abutted a market district, and, at that time of the evening, shopkeepers were lifting their wares off the sidewalks and placing them into the shops, preparing to pull down the ugly metal security grates and close for the night. Chinese men and women walked by, some as couples, some alone, a few sitting on other benches in the park.

"I'll walk by and try to catch her eye," I thought. "Maybe say something silly when she's off the phone. Most Filipinas speak decent English."

I made a long loop and chose a route that would allow me to walk in front of her. As I approached, she was deep in conversation and didn't notice me.

As I walked directly in front of her, she looked up. I thought, "Yes! I should --"

The sidewalk slammed into my right palm and hit me on the right cheek. I was lying flat on the park's cement surface, confused. Beside me, an old Chinese man, walking with his wife, said, "You OK?"

I wasn't sure. I slowly stood up, facing the old man, my back to the Filipina. I had stumbled over a small step running through the park. I hadn't seen it in the dark, and I had tripped and laid out my length on the ground. My right ankle hurt, and the sole of my right shoe was ripped halfway off.

"I'm OK," I said to the old man and limped toward my hotel.

I didn't look back at the Filipina.

PART TWO: The Cantonese Cobbler

The cobbler's shop was in an alley off the main street. The shop was a tin shed lashed to the side of a concrete building. A counter faced onto the alley, and the cobbler sat behind the counter with his equipment and solvents.

He looked like he was in his 70s, with white hair in a buzzcut, thinner and darker on top than on the sides. He spoke no English and was polishing a boot when I arrived.

I held up my right foot so he could see the dangling sole. I pointed to it, and he nodded.

I took off my shoe and gave it to him. He reached into the darkness at one end of the shop and pulled up a grey plastic stool, handing it to me. I accepted it, placed it on the side of the alley and sat down to watch.

The cobbler picked up a pallette knife and vigorously scraped the top of the sole, called the insole, and the bottom of the body of the shoe, called the vamp. When both the insole and the bottom of the vamp were smooth to his satisfaction, he poured tan glue into a small glass jar.

Using a paint brush with an inch-wide set of bristles, the cobbler applied lots of glue to the edges of the insole and to the bottom of the vamp. He also glued down a tattered piece of insole cloth that tore when I tripped.

Finished with the jar of glue, he pulled out a skinny length of wood, about six inches long, and placed it at the point where the insole met the vamp. The wood prevented the two glue-covered surfaces from touching; then he propped the shoe up next to a rusty electric fan, which he turned on, so that the air from the fan began to dry the glue.

We waited. He returned to polishing the boot. I read my copy of Macau Business magazine. About four minutes passed.

The cobbler picked up the shoe, removed the stick and turned off the fan. He lined up the insole and the vamp and squeezed them together, aligning them perfectly. My shoe was whole again. The cobbler picked up a hammer and pounded around the edges of the sole.

He inspected the alignment again. He reached under the counter and retrieved a small plastic container of glue, with a pointed tip. He used this tool to inject additional glue along the horseshoe line where the insole had been reunited with the vamp. He put the needle-nosed bottle underneath the counter and used his hands to press the shoe together. He pulled a rag from his pocket and cleaned away excess glue.

He handed me the shoe. I handed him the grey plastic stool on which I had been sitting. I put the shoe on.

I pulled from my pocket a note for 10 Macau patacas, which is about $1.30 in U.S. money. He took the note and smiled.

"M'goy," he said in his language.

"Thank you," I said in mine.

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Pentagon's New African Command To Secure New African Oil?

Hong Kong, China

William Arkin of the Washington Post wrote this month about the Pentagon's decision to create a new Africa Command. Arkin's take, which may or may not be correct, was that the new command is an exercise in bureaucratic empire-building. (For a map of the current U.S. military command structure, which splits responsibility for Africa among three commands, click here.)

The general quoted in the piece justified the new command on the basis of radical Islam's foothold in East Africa. But the piece reminded me of a blog post I read several years ago about the Pentagon's decision to fund the Littoral Combat Ship, a small destroyer which can operate in shallow waters.

The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook wrote:

"How would Littoral Combat Ship really be used? Most likely, to prowl the waters off the Western coast of Africa. Here is a topic for another day, but over the next one or two decades, U.S. oil purchases are likely to decline in the Persian Gulf and rise in the Gulf of Guinea, where significant new fields are being found. West African oil would be much preferable to Persian Gulf oil -- fewer entanglements, no Arab despots to suck up to as their princes stab us in the back. In military terms, the West African coast is a much better environment for tankers than the Persian Gulf. Tankers leaving West Africa for the United States would simply sail due West into the blue-water ocean, where the United States Navy has total domination: avoiding the Strait of Hormuz, never passing within gunnery range of Iranian positions at Gazdan and so on.

"If Littoral Combat Ship's real purpose is to control West African waters at affordable cost, it is a good sign that the Navy is looking ahead to this mission, because substitution of Western Africa oil for Gulf State oil will be a huge political advance."

The Pentagon currently plans to commission 55 Littoral Combat Ships, according to

If one of the purposes of an Africa Command is to secure oil from a region which is less of a headache than the Persian Gulf, then I'll accept some featherbedding.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The City of Falling Angels

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (Penguin 2005).

At first blush, writing a new book about Venice is as needless as taking a new photograph of Paris Hilton. "There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject," wrote Henry James in 1882. "Nothing can be said (including this statement) that has not been said before," Mary McCarthy wrote several decades later.

Instead of re-wording the observations of his predecessors, author John Berendt’s approach was to echo his own previous work. Berendt’s first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was a series of sketches about the eccentric residents of Savannah, Georgia, loosely organized around the investigation of a crime. Berendt’s follow-up, The City of Falling Angels, wanders the identical path. The book reminded me of film critic Stanley Kauffmann’s observation that, after two films, director Whit Stillman was in a rut that, for most directors, required half a dozen films.

But what a readable rut. The crime this time is the 1996 destruction by fire, accidental or intentional, of the Fenice Opera House prior to its planned re-opening after an extensive renovation. More so than the alleged murder in Midnight, the fire is a MacGuffin, vanishing for chapters at a time so that Berendt can write magazine-style profiles of colorful Venetians.

The first character we meet is Count Girolamo Marcello, who speaks in aphorisms, evokes the city’s history and has a great name. “Everyone in Venice is acting. Everyone plays a role, and the role changes,” the Count explained in the Prologue. “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.” The Count is an hors d’oevre; we rarely see him again.

Berendt’s initial guides are his landlords and upstairs neighbors, Rose and Peter Lauritzen. “And you should remember: everything is negotiable in Venice,” Rose explained while selling Berendt on her spare flat in the Palazzo da Silva. “I mean everything: prices, rents, doctors’ fees, lawyers’ fees, taxes, fines, even jail terms. Everything!”

“You’re always running into people you know because the only way to get around Venice, whether you’re a countess or a shopkeeper, is to walk or take the vaporetto [water taxi],” Rose explained later. “You can’t move about unseen in a private car, and in that respect Venice is terribly democratic.”

Democratic, but layered with suspicion and corruption. Before the fire was contained, many Venetians were blaming the Mafia, which had burned the Petruzzelli Opera House in Bari in 1991. Others blamed the criminal negligence of the local politicians officially charged with the Fenice’s restoration. Another faction was certain it was arson at the hands of workmen.

Berendt dutifully interviews all of the key people involved in the fire and its aftermath, but his heart belongs to the various eccentrics he meets along the way, many of whom have nothing to do with the fire but make great copy.

The Rat Man of Treviso earned his fortune by creating recipes for rat poison using different combinations of human food after he observed that “rats eat what people eat.” An Anglo-American couple appears to have a habit of befriending wealthy old people who die and leave the couple in charge of their legacies. Two successful American men, who you think would have better things to do, war over control of the Save Venice charity. A man in his 50s, who could best be described as a professional heir and who reminded me of Buster from the television program “Arrested Development,” collects spacesuits, listens to audio recordings of rocket launches and attempts to persuade the world’s leaders to fire their nuclear codes onto Mars.

Berendt, a life-long journalist now in his 60s, writes in a clear, succinct fashion. I finished the book in two days. So will you.

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Turkmenbashi Buried

Hong Kong, China

The Turkmenbashi was buried yesterday in the family mausoleum outside Ashgabat, the BBC reports in print and video.

"Family mausoleum" understates the matter. After the Turkmenbashi returned from his Hajj to Mecca several years ago (notice how secular Muslim dictators have a habit of finding religion as they grow older), he built the Hajji Mosque, a building so large and ornate that Aaron Spelling would have felt uncomfortable in it. As noted by one of my fellow travellers, the mosque is obviously blasphemous, since it is decorated throughout with quotations from the Turkmenbashi, placed as prominently as, and with more frequency than, quotes from the Koran.

On one side of the mosque is the family mausoleum, which is the size of a large house. Like the mosque and all other new buildings in Ashgabat, it is faced with white marble.

I tried to enter the mausoleum, but one of the two guards refused to let me and waived me toward the mosque. Why foreigners would be forbidden from visiting the mausoleum is beyond me, but that appeared to be the rule.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Life Under The Turkmenbashi's Thumb

“Our whackjob dictator is dead. Now what?”

That’s the question many Turkmen will be asking themselves this week, as the nation of Turkmenistan buries its leader of 21 years. I visited the small Central Asian republic of about 5 million people in November 2006 and saw first-hand the results of one man’s autocratic – and deeply weird – rule.

Saparmyrat Niyazov rose to power within the former Soviet Union as a dutiful apparatchik. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rewarded Niyazov for his loyalty with the top job in his homeland, the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Niyazov did what Moscow said, but he wasn’t much of a glasnost-era reformer. Niyazov ruled as a totalitarian and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he proclaimed an independent Turkmenistan of which he was President, a title later upgraded to President For Life.

So far, so typical. The Turkmenistan story doesn’t seem too different from that of many other former Soviet republics – except that, somewhere along the line, Niyazov went batshit insane.

For the past decade, Western journalism about Turkmenistan has been monopolized by reports of Niyazov’s cult of personality, which manifested itself in grandiose construction projects and idiosyncratic laws.

The stories about the statues are true. Statues of Niyazov, who granted himself the title “Turkmenbashi [Father of All Turkmen] the Great,” are everywhere, even in smaller towns. Some are plated with gold; some are painted yellow. One sits atop a three-legged Space Age monstrosity called the Arch of Neutrality and rotates throughout the day, always facing the sun.

Niyazov decreed that the exteriors of all new buildings in the capital city of Ashgabat had to be lined with white marble. Fair enough. What’s the point of running your own country if you can’t amend the Building Code? Niyazov’s architectural aesthetic also demanded gold-trimmed windows, grand staircases and massive foyers with a perimeter of fat marble-clad columns.

From the streets and sidewalks, Ashgabat is the beautiful “White City” that Niyazov decreed. Cavernous museums and dressy government ministries dot the city. Niyazov ruled from the gold-domed Palace of Turkmenbashi, a building you’re forbidden to photograph, a quaint restriction in the days of Google Earth. Outside the central city, a new district has been erected, with rows of hotels and luxury apartment towers.

All of these new buildings were built with petrodollars culled from the exploitation of Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, the fifth-largest in the world, according to the BBC.

But most of the shiny new buildings are empty and falling apart.

The gleaming white boxes of Ashgabat are a Potemkin village. The hotels – most of which are owned by Niyazov’s son -- are nearly empty, because Turkmenistan’s baroque immigration procedures require travelers to obtain a Letter of Invitation and be cleared by internal security, a process which takes several weeks. At the grandest hotel of all, the President Hotel (next door to the all-important oil and gas ministry), I had dinner in a restaurant which rivaled the opulence of the Bellagio in Las Vegas – a treat for myself and the two African businessmen who were the only other diners.

The hotels seem to be managed by people who have never stayed at a hotel which, given the fact that most Turkmen are not allowed to travel, may be the case. In the Nissa Hotel, my room contained a standard min-bar menu, but the mini-bar was empty except for a lonely bottle of water, which was not replenished the next day. The room featured a tea set but no tea. My shower head would not stay in one place, the television did not work, and the telephone did not connect to the front desk or to room service. All this in a relatively new and upscale hotel.

The Turkmenbashi decreed that it would be built, and it was built, and it was not good. The point of many of these erections was to look striking from a distance and when pictured in the state-controlled media. The blocks of luxury apartments were mostly empty, the national museum had more docents than visitors, and, when you inspected the details, everything was moldy or shoddy.

Follies abounded. Two new mosques could seat a combined total of 25,000 faithful, but between them I saw one man praying. Several theatres were built, but Niyazov ruled that opera and ballet and other productions were “un-Turkmen,” so the pavilions sat empty. The Olympic Stadium never saw an Olympic game. An amusement park – officially called the World of Turkmen Fairy Tales but universally referred to as “Turkmen Disneyland” -- was closed during my visit, with an uncertain re-opening date in December. The hills outside the capital are scarred with the 36-kilometer Health Walk, a concrete hiking trail; like everything else, it was built without regard to how Turkmen would actually use it – there did not appear to be any water vendors or toilet facilities — and the only people I saw on the trail were maintenance men.

Pictures of Niyazov were everywhere -- in the stores, above the doors to most public buildings, on all the money, on patriotic billboards, even on the bulkhead walls of all Turkmenistan Airlines planes. A lot of things were named after him, too -- the main airport, the local liquor, a meteorite, the first month of the year.

One restaurant in which I dined had a magazine rack which contained about a half dozen Turkmen periodicals. All were at least a year old, and every article was about the President For Life. The two newspapers, one printed in Turkmen and the other in Russian, were broadsheets of about 8 pages, brimming with more tales of the Turkmenbashi. It would be hard to fill eight pages a day with stories about George W. Bush; I felt sympathy for the writers.

The state-controlled media also included stones. Throughout the country, white stones were used to inscribe patriotic slogans on the sides of hills or at crossroads. The man wanted to sell his message.

The regime mistrusts private enterprise. Ashgabat has about 700,000 people, but, outside of the hotels, there are only a handful of bars and a dozen or so restaurants in the central city. There was nothing to do except go home and watch Russian soap operas via the ubiquitous satellite dishes. A poor village in the Karakum Desert lacked indoor plumbing, but most villagers had a satellite dish.

Meanwhile, aspects of the economy which did not glorify Niyazov’s ego were neglected. The buses in the towns outside of Ashgabat were rattletraps. For the price of one or two luxury apartment buildings, Niyazov could have equipped the entire country with new buses running for pennies on the land’s bountiful natural gas.

Niyazov fancied himself a philosopher-king, so his book of mythic balderdash and poetry, Rukhnama, is required reading. Its author suggested that two hours a day was an appropriate amount of study. One Turkman with whom I spoke said he’d never cracked it open. He’s missing 398 pages of “Today, time passes so fast; this is just a point between eternity and the future” and “Let’s select a thousand-winged horse/And travel praying over plains and mountains/And seek for the ancestors who became part of them/And you are the Turkmen which hosts 360 saints.”

It gets worse. Hospitals in the provinces were closed. The jails at one time held more than 22,000 political prisoners. Movement was restricted by a checkerboard of roadblocks which required people to stop and produce their papers every few kilometers. The Turkmen outside of Ashgabat are treated like second-class citizens, and I was informed that they vented their frustrations by persecuting soldiers from the capital who are sent to the provinces for their mandatory military service.

All of which yields a poor country in which people should be wealthy – by rights, as wealthy as Norway – but instead live in cramped Soviet-era apartment blocks which, due to the Turkmenbashi’s tin ear for urban planning, are actually the nicest places in the country to live.

I sat in the hotel bar, and a young Turkmen woman approached me to chat. I bought her a drink, and, after four minutes of small talk, she asked if I would marry her so she could leave the country.

“Why do you want to leave?” I asked.

“Life is bad here,” she said. “The university is bad. You need to know the government to have a job.”

Then she threw back her head and sighed in the theatrical fashion of an exasperated 24-year-old:

“And it is SO-O-O boring!”

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Turkmenbashi Is Dead

Turkmenistan's post-Soviet dictator Saparmurat Niyazov -- whose self-conferred titles included President-For-Life, The Father of All Turkmen and "Turkmenbashi The Great" -- is dead from cardiac arrest at the age of 66, Reuters reports.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Leave Because You Are Going To Die"

Hong Kong, China

Penis mutilation. Firebombs. Torturing a blind man for opining about sports.

This is how Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, remains in office, James Kirchick reports in The Weekly Standard.


The Party Is Watching

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China.

November 2006.

Photograph by Christopher Pizzello.

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Friday, December 15, 2006


My sentiments exactly.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Long Tail

The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand by Chris Anderson (Random House 2006).

For my final calculus exam of high school, I write a literary essay. Yes, I attempted to solve each mathematical problem, but my employment of Newton's and Leibniz's insights quickly foundered.

So, after putting enough numbers and graphs into the blue book to persuade Mr. Hitsman not to fail me, I wrote an essay about the literary and philosophical implications of the limit, the introductory concept of calculus.

A limit is an equation that approaches a number but never reaches that number. A simple limit is a number which keeps reducing itself by half. It approaches zero, but it never reaches zero, because there is always something left after 50% is removed.

The limit had applications well beyond mathematics, I wrote in earnest, senior-year diction. The limit can be likened to the myth of Sisyphus, where the cursed Greek king was damned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder fall to the bottom each night, never reaching the summit. The existentialists argued that this seeming slavery was actually an emancipation because, in time, Sisyphus, a proxy for modern man, would accept his fate and take solace from the fact that the rock never reached the summit.

In fact, the internalization of the limit by society to human exigencies could act as a dispute resolution mechanism preventing conflict and preserving order!

Mr. Hitsman gave me a D for the semester, which is more than I thought I deserved, and I've been grateful to the man every since.

Now, it turns out, the limit has an economic and marketing application, as detailed in The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand, by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine. It's just not clear how anyone without access to serious funding can capitalize on the idea.

As illustrated in the accompanying graphic, a small number of hits comprise the Body, or Short Head, of a marketplace. This is where you would find the book The Da Vinci Code and the DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Under traditional retailing theory, these bestsellers comprise more than 80% of sales, so, given a finite amount of shelf and warehouse space, the most profitable strategy is to stock only the hits -- which is why your chance of finding pre-Code, black-and-white noir thrillers at the local Blockbuster is zero.

The rest of the marketplace is found in the Long Tail (the yellow part of the graph), and one of the key discoveries of online retailing is that the Long Tail appears to be a limit that approaches, but never reaches, zero. Everything sells at least a few copies. According to Apple, every single track offered by iTunes at the time of writing had sold at least one copy. Netflix revealed that 95% of its DVDs rent at least once a quarter. Ecast, a digital jukebox, found that 98% of the songs in its inventory were requested at least once a quarter.

Thus, while Short Head retailing focuses on the hits, Long Tail retailing embraces both the hits and what were previously known as the misses. Bombs aren't necessarily bombs, Anderson argues; they could be successful products for which the audience is too geographically dispersed to allow for successful exploitation in a bricks-and-mortar environment. For example, Bollywood releases hundreds of films a year, and the United States is home to tens of millions of people from India, but there are less than half a dozen cities in the U.S. with enough Indians to support traditional moviehouse screenings of Bollywood films. But, if every U.S. fan of Juhi Chawla can log onto Netflix and rent Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, now you have a market that's worth something.

The quantification of the exact value of the Long Tail market is surprisingly left vague by the book, and, from the statistics presented, the value may differ sharply among industries. Anderson's data implies that, at least currently, the Short Head is worth more than the Long Tail for most products. At Barnes & Noble's web site, sales of the slowest-selling 1.2 million books represent about 10% of total sales. Better than 0%, but nothing to write a 238-page book about. PRX, which licenses radio programs, reports that the bottom 80% of programs account for 50% of sales. That's better. In the world of online music, new products represent about one-third of sales and the back catalog represents about two-thirds. Not bad at all.

The fundamental problem of the Long Tail is that, while there's money to made in the misses, only the "aggregators" are in a position to post that profit. Alibris can make millions by brokering used book sales, and Apple can squeeze revenue from a Midwestern garage band that sells seventeen albums a year, but where does that leave the creators? An author whose book sells only several dozen copies is taking a loss when you factor in the value and opportunity cost of his time. Someone's making money, but it's Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch, not necessarily the two Chinese guys posting their goofy lip-synching. (OK, those two got endorsement deals from Motorola and, but, in the world of user-generated content, they're stars who inhabit the Short Head, not the Long Tail.)

The Long Tail contains many insights about online retailing (and an explanation of why DJs create dance mixes under so many pseudonyms). But I'm not sure that the monetization of the Long Tail amounts to much more than "Sell Other People's Stuff, Have Them Store It, And Make It Easy to Find."

There must be more universally applicable business advice to cull from the fact that, with unlimited geographic distribution, merchandise sales and digital downloads behave like a limit that approaches, but never reaches, zero. Maybe I should ask Mr. Hitsman.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

In Praise of Slow

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore (Orion 2004).

A rugby-playing London trader gardens to control his stress. France mandates a 35-hour work week. A vocal minority of classical musicians performs famous works at half the customary speed. A small Italian city bans vehicle traffic on its cobblestone downtown streets.

All of these are examples of Slow, writes journalist Carl Honore in his book In Praise of Slow. Slow is a movement, manifesting itself in changes in food and education and even sex, which seeks to counter the "velocitization" of life.

"In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts," Honore writes.

Work is the greatest offender. We work longer, faster, harder -- and other aspects of life suffer. And we do it mainly to finance the purchase of trinkets we don't need and rarely use. "Everyone needs to earn a living," Honore writes, "but the endless hunger for consumer goods means that we need more and more cash. So instead of taking productivity gains in the form of extra time off, we take them in higher income."

The philosophy of Slow seeks to recapture our control over time, whether in the form of three-hour dinners that take all day to cook or speed bumps near the farmers' market. Slow does not mean that people should do everything slowly; it means that everyone should have the option of determining their speed at any given moment. "Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for," Honore writes.

Honore is aware of the criticism that the external manifestations of Slow -- e.g., organic produce and long, free-form vacations -- can be expensive, but he argues that Slow is not a gated community for burnt-out yuppies. "Spending more time with friends and family costs nothing. Nor does walking, cooking, meditating, making love, reading or eating dinner at the table instead of in front of the television. Simply resisting the urge to hurry is free."

Honore makes his strongest and weakest arguments in the context of children. No doubt, the parents who program every hour of their children's lives with enrichment activities are doing their children a disservice. I've always suspected that turning six-year-olds into rigorously scheduled appointment-keepers has more to do with being perceived as a good parent than with actually being one. As a friend of mine said when his daughter was born, "The challenge isn't to be a perfect parent. The challenge is to be a reasonable parent."

But the parents in Honore's discussion of high-powered elementary schooling opted to send their kids to less turbo-charged government schools -- which simply isn't an option in many cities. Particularly in the United States, government schools, especially high schools, can be poor academic performers with physically dangerous environments. Those jurisdictions with good schools tend to have the costliest homes. So, in terms of education for their kids, parents tend to get what they can afford to buy.

Honore completely misses the role of college admissions in driving the "hyper-parenting" culture. Parents and their children become convinced that a frenzy of superficial participation in a smorgasbord of academic, extracurricular and community service activities is what selective colleges want in applicants -- and they're right. Honore quotes from the "Slow Down" letter sent to all incoming Harvard College freshmen, with its avuncular advice to "gradually spend more of your time on fewer things you discover you truly love." But no one who did that in high school would have a chance of admission to Harvard or any other highly selective university.

Ultimately, Honore's attempt to document a movement of Slow isn't so much unsuccessful as unsatisfying -- like wolfing down a Big Mac. Honore's method of proof is heavily anecdotal. I am confident that all of the people he discusses exist and that they have changed their lives as reported, but I suspect that they are a minority. People talk about downshifting their lives, but it's always something to be done later, after accumulating a nest egg or after the kids move out or after retirement. Currently, the King of Speed sits safely on his throne.

Here's some anecdotal proof: As I write this, Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals is the 56th best-selling book on Amazon. In Praise of Slow is ranked 43,241.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Miguel Street

Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad-United Kingdom 1959).

V.S. Naipaul's first book (although it was the third to be published) is a collection of 17 vignettes, each one about a different neighbor on Miguel Street, a slum in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Naipaul was writing about his native country and, through elision, his escape from its limitations.

Miguel Street had many fools. Uncle Bhakcu was mechanically inept but insisted on fixing cars and rendering them inoperable. Elias wanted to become a doctor but couldn't pass the sanitary inspector exam. Laura had eight children by seven fathers, and beautiful Mrs. Hereira left her comfortable married life to live with an abusive brute of a boyfriend who "has many good qualities, you know."

The narrator eventually left Miguel Street. In the fiction, his mother bribed a local potentate to secure for her son a pharmacology scholarship in London. In reality, Naipaul, from a well-established family, received a government scholarship to study literature at University College, Oxford.

He looked back. Naipaul displays sympathy for his characters but, characteristically, is forthright about their flaws. Most would never leave Miguel Street; some tried but were driven back by failure; a few drifted away. These are their stories, told in the Trinidadian English patois, and it is also the beginning of Naipaul's story.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins 1988).

At the top of the mountain, the writer asked the sage for the Secret of Shifting Untold Units.

The sage paused.

"Short sentences," the sage finally said. "Dramatic pauses. Then a long, jarring sentence that somehow makes itself and the shorter surrounding sentences seem all the more profound.

"That is where you start," the sage said. A hawk landed near his feet.

The writer was disappointed and could not hide his sadness.

"I have journeyed ten thousand steps to learn the Secret of Shifting Untold Units," the writer said. "I want to sell 85 million books, like Paulo Coelho. Yet all you give is a syntax lesson."

"Syntax is the manner in which words combine to create phrases," the sage said. "It is important to immediately define every unusual word. Nudge the reader gently. Never challenge the reader, or she will buy a Mary Higgins Clark book next time."

"That is helpful," said the writer, "but there is more to writing a best-selling book."

"Much more," said the sage. The hawk pecked at seeds on the ground.

"Use indefinite nouns like 'the boy' and 'the juggler,'" said the sage. "That makes it seem as if a dream. Select a vague Important Thought, and repeat the Important Thought throughout the book, always capitalized. Is this what you seek?"

"Yes," said the writer, taking notes with his instrument.

"Use elemental words. Fire. Water. Sugar beets," the sage said. "Symbolic animals are good, too."

The hawk stopped pecking and stared at the sage.

"Make obvious allusions to each of the world's largest religions. Billions of people will think the book speaks to them," the sage said.

"How do I end the book?" asked the writer.

"A good question," the sage said.

The two sat in silence.

"No, really, enough with the portentious pauses," the writer said. "How do I end the book?"

"Remember that Important Thought you repeated every five pages?" asked the sage. "Create a climax which dramatizes the Important Thought in a mystical yet painfully literal manner. Have the hero prevail, and wrap up every loose plot thread in the last two pages. End on a note of triumphant achievement, so that your readers will feel uplifted."

"And that is the Secret of Shifting Untold Units?" the writer asked.

"That's how you earn out your first advance. Then crank one out every year or so for the rest of your life," said the sage.

The writer climbed down the mountain and wrote as the sage instructed. After facing adversity and confronting self-doubt in a picturesque setting, the writer spoke with a healing vision that demanded nothing of the reader. But the market for feel-good pabulum had been saturated by Paulo Coelho, and the writer's book was remaindered within months.

The hawk winked at the sage and flew away.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Booking the Axis of Evil Tour: Iran

Hong Kong, China

May U.S. citizens legally visit Iran?

Yes. Although the United States has no diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and has imposed sanctions against the regime, travel is an express exception to the sanctions.

"All transactions ordinarily incident to travel to and from Iran, including the importation of accompanied baggage for strictly personal use, payment of maintenance and living expenses and acquisition of goods and services for personal use are permitted." An Overview of O.F.A.C. Regulations Involving Sanctions Against Iran, at Page 3.

The actual federal regulation notes that the principal tourism-related transactions of purchasing tickets from Iranian carriers and booking tours are exempted from sanctions. 31 C.F.R. section 560.210(d).

Forbidden City Slugger

Beijing, China

November 2006.

Photograph by Christopher Pizzello.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Premature Death of Your Passport

Hong Kong, China

Your passport does not expire when it expires. It expires six months before it expires.

The identification page of your passport states an expiration date. For U.S. citizens over the age of 16, the expiration date is ten years minus one day after the date of issuance. The passport is valid until the expiration date, as far as the United States government is concerned.

But, before you can use your last-legs passport to re-enter the U.S., you have to enter a foreign country. Many nations require, as a condition of entry, that your passport remain valid for at least six months thereafter. Some countries require three months of passport validity, and Kazakhstan has to be different and requires 60 days. (See State Department's non-authoritative list of Foreign Entry Requirements.) If your passport is due to expire within the required time period, airline personnel can deny you boarding and immigration officials can deny you entrance.

Consequently, you need to start procedures to renew your passport about nine months before it expires because, six months before expiration, it already has one cover in the grave.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I, Vampire

I, Vampire by Michael Romkey (Random House 1990).

Ghosts are scarier than diseases. Most diseases and medical conditions, even the deadly ones, can be cured or controlled by the scientific method. But a ghost or supernatural being is, by definition, beyond our ability to comprehend or counteract.

Which is why horror authors who treat vampirism as a disease make a mistake. If the need to suck blood is a condition akin to polio, then charitable fundraisers and research by the pharma companies should put a stake through the heart of the disorder. If the virus that causes extended fangs and an aversion to sunlight is nettlesome, then stage a benefit concert (after sundown) and select a color for the ribbons and wristbands. As much as no one wants to fall ill, we have a routine for addressing diseases, and we are confident that, with enough time and resources, every condition will be treatable. Thus, the medicalization of vampirism reduces an undead ghoul into a sympathetic charity case waiting for a cure.

It takes author Michael Romkey half of I, Vampire to recover from this initial misstep (just as it took George Lucas two films to recover from his ill-conceived explanation of The Force as the product of microscopic "midi-chlorians"). The classical elements of the vampire myth -- the need for others' blood, the increased strength, the nocturnal lurking, the three bites needed to transform a victim -- are explained by Romkey in terms of viral load and cellular regeneration. It's as haunting and mysterious as providing a specimen at your doctor's office.

David Parker, an accomplished pianist who played it safe and became a successful but unhappy Chicago attorney, steals into a hotel lounge one evening to render a final performance and then kill himself. He is stopped from suicide by his audience of one, Tatiana, a striking Russian woman with Old World grace and regal bearing.

Tatiana is revealed to be Grand Duchess Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanov of the Russian imperial house. Although she was shot by Bolsheviks on July 18, 1918, along with the rest of her family, she survived because she had already become a vampire -- which is also why she still looked ravishing in the late 1980s.

Parker agrees to become a vampire, more to pursue his lust for Tatiana than any other reason, and learns that, as the newest recruit, he is in the cross fire of a vampire war. The Illuminati represent the best of their species, many of whom were brilliant and accomplished men and women when they were human. Mozart, da Vinci, Jefferson -- all are now vampires.

The Illuminati struggle against the evil vampires, led by Cesare Borgia and his lieutenant, Jack the Ripper. These vampires, many of whom are royalists or former Nazis, seek to overthrow the governments of Western Europe and establish a totalitarian monarchy, with succession limited to those with their genetically superior bloodline.

That's more like it! Ancient European palaces instead of hematology laboratories. Royal peerage charts instead of genome maps.

Vampires are an anachronism. They wilt under the light of the modern day, and their fictional existence is incompatible with science. In reality, C.S.I. and the profilers would quickly identify anyone who had to commit so many murders. Vampires belong in the past and, if one were to surface today, his or her thoughts and actions would be of another century.

Anne Rice understands this, which is why her vampires tend to die not from violence but at the hands of modernity. "The world changes. We do not. Therein lies the irony that finally kills us," said Armand in Interview With The Vampire.

I, Vampire is better than its overused premise of good vampires v. bad vampires would suggest. The evil vampires would naturally gravitate toward a totalitarian state and would seek to impose it upon others. It's the environment in which they would be most comfortable.

Makes you wonder why there are so few photographs of Kim Jong Il strolling through North Korea on a sunny day.

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The Wall

Beijing, China

The Public Security Bureau doesn't let you out of the country if you don't take this picture.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Autograph Man

A sweet essay about a forgotten baseball player answering fan mail fifteen years late.


Portrait of the Blogger As a Relatively Young Man

Kowloon, Hong Kong S.A.R., China

November 2006.

Photograph by Christopher Pizzello.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Viking/Penguin 2000).

There is no direct evidence that the most influential person in history actually existed.

In the customary telling, Siddhartha Gotama was born in 563 B.C. as a prince of the Kingdom of Sakya in what is now Lumbini, Nepal. The tradition is that, at age 29, he left his father's palace to live as an ascetic monk and learn how to end human suffering.

Not finding the answers in harsh self-denial, Gotama developed a Middle Way between luxury and asceticism, between self-indulgence and self-abnegation. At the age of 35, he achieved enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching his philosophy and died in 483 B.C., at age 80, in the obscure hamlet of Kushinagar, India, after eating a tainted meal.

Not a single fact in this briefest of outlines can be confirmed. No primary sources exist of Gotama's life or of his teachings. There are no surviving census records or tax receipts or deeds. Gotama probably spoke a language called Magadhi Prakrit, but he did not author any written texts.

Instead, he composed and delivered sermons, and these sermons, in their surviving form, are the core materials from which author Karen Armstrong develops Buddha, a biography of Gotama.

The sermons were redacted into a small library of about 45 books called the Pali Canon (named after the language in which they were written), and the Canon presents its own challenges to the historian. Shortly after the Buddha's death, his followers convened the First Council and determined the core teachings, but did not write them down. Instead, monks were assigned different sermons and stories to memorize precisely, and, for about 300 to 400 years, this oral tradition was the mode of transmission. The Canon was not memorialized in writing until about the first century B.C., and -- the most troubling fact -- the earliest existing copies of the Canon are only about 500 years old. Consequently, any discussion of the history of the Buddha or Buddhism requires induction and guesswork.

Yet, despite the shroud of time, the Buddha's personality comes through in his teachings. The more you read about Buddhism, the more you come to understand, almost to intuit, the man's presence.

Gotama was, above all else, a rationalist, as post-Enlightenment a person as Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking. Millenia before the Renaissance, Gotama preached that the world could be understood not by recourse to a dogma or diety but by observation and thought. "The Buddha always insisted that his disciples test everything he taught them against their own experience and take nothing on hearsay," Armstrong writes. The world -- and the solution to mankind's suffering -- was understandable solely through the power of the human mind, Gotama taught.

Gotama was practical. The purpose of Buddhism is to ease and end human suffering; religious pursuits which were not directed toward this goal were wasted energy. In particular, Gotama had no time for metaphysical or hypothetical questions. "I am preaching a cure for these unhappy conditions here and now," Gotama said, "so always remember what I have not explained to you and the reason why I have refused to explain it." It does not matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because the answer does not allow a person to lead a happier life.

Gotama's practicality lead directly to his refusal to adhere to any form of deism. There is no God in Buddhism. One may exist, and you're free to so believe, but, since God had not appeared and detailed a method for relieving the turmoil of life, the question of God's existence was irrelevant to Gotama.

He was a modernizer. Outdated and unhelpful religious practices -- i.e., those which did not assist in abating suffering -- should be discontinued, he said; he was referring to the Hindu Vedas, but his advice could apply to any doctrine, his own included. "Even his own teachings must be jettisoned, once they had done their job," Armstrong writes. The Dalai Lama of Tibet says the same about his own sermons. "Use what works, and leave the rest."

Gotama was not perfect; he was a dreadful family man. He named his son Rahula, which means "fetter" or "shackle" -- something many parents think but don't say. When Gotama left his father's house to become an ascetic, he effectively abandoned his young family and snuck out in the middle of the night without saying good-bye.

Armstrong is a former nun, and anybody who has attended Catholic school will recognize her teaching style. She presents the facts in an academic, almost detached manner, with explanatory discussions of the source materials, their historical contexts and any translation issues -- exactly the manner in which priests and nuns teach the Gospels. Then, whatever the topic, she'll veer mid-paragraph into theological or moral questions that interest her. At times, I felt like I was back in high school.

Buddha provides an overview of Buddhist thought, but it keeps its focus on the story of the prince who became a preacher. We don't know how much is fact and how much is fable, but Armstrong is a competent guide to readers who are encountering these stories for the first time.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

"Writing Is More About Creating Story Than A Storehouse"

Hong Kong, China

Why is it that Indians always seem like the smartest guys in the room? Travel writer Pico Iyer provides an intimidatingly intelligent interview to World Hum.

Top Five Ways I Will Annoy People When I Return To The States

5. Begin every third sentence with "When I was crossing the Meekong . . . ."

4. Continue to wear only three days of clothing.

3. Insist on using the phrase "American football."

2. Haggle with the salesclerks at the mall.

1. Speak entirely in metric.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rolf Potts Speaking In L.A. This Weekend

Hong Kong, China

Rolf Potts, author of the travel book Vagabonding -- which everyone should read -- is speaking in Los Angeles on Sunday. Details here.